Flowers in the Snow
Note: I share this piece that I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1999. The site it was originally posted on is long gone. This is yet another November memory for me coupled to my theme from my latest Tiger-Eye Review.
Flowers in the Snow
At seventeen, I thought I knew it all. With a cynical eye towards everything my parents believed in and the new freedom of young adulthood looming close, I was eager to express my idealistic opinions. I had ample opportunity. I was active in my school’s Student Council, Model United Nations and debated national political issues with my friends. I fancied myself free from the commitment of citizenship and service with the certainty that I was a military brat. My family had collectively paid for my freedom.
Not that I was unappreciative of the fact. I honored my father’s and two brother’s military service but felt there was no need to serve myself. I had seen the Army up close and felt that while living overseas was nice, there was little to be gained by joining THAT organization. No rules and orders for me. I would break the mold and not give in to my Dad’s tentative hints about ROTC. He got the message. I had proudly asserted that I was in it for number one and wanted above all things to get ahead.
Then came the field trip to the East German border at the Fulda Gap. Twenty or so of us loaded on a bus from in front of the school and headed east from Frankfurt. I was attending an overseas Department of Defense school there. My Dad had retired after thirty-one years of service and had simply changed a uniform for a suit and went right back as a civil servant. Why, I couldn’t imagine.
For me, the Cold War was basically a nonissue. It had been going on forever, and I for one didn’t see anything to warrant all the commotion about East and West Germany. Why couldn’t we just accept the fact that there was always going to be an East and West and get over it? I felt the trip was a big waste of time. I was bored. One more little military post to look at. So what?
So what indeed.
I don’t remember much about most of the trip: the iron gray, overcast sky, the rain giving way to sleet and then snow as we climbed in elevation towards the border, and the mindless chatter of the other students in my German II class. I’m sure they were there; I just don’t remember them clearly. I took only one vision back from that little trip to the border, and it haunts me still: Wilted flowers in the snow.
When we got there, we were given a quick briefing about the post and some crap about staying close to the bus and not straying too far away. I took this as a challenge to see how far down the little trail I could go before being noticed. After snapping a few pictures of the watchtower on the East German side, the fence line and the mined fields beyond, I surreptitiously began to sidle down the beaten path that meandered along this side of the fence. Gleeful at my craftiness and congratulating myself on my clever ploy, I slipped out of sight down the slope and began to jauntily walk down the path. Just over the next small rise I came up short at a small wooden cross, jammed in the ground with a tattered wreath hanging on it.
I stopped, curious. The flowers had wilted away and were strewn on the snow at the foot of the cross. I was puzzled. The cross and wreath were some distance away from where we stopped, and I remember thinking that it was only November. Christmas was over a month and a half away. Why would anyone put a wreath all the way out here?
I heard someone coming and froze. “Oh s**t,” I thought with a half smile “I guess they found me!” I turned around to see the Army captain who was our guide come down the trail. Expecting a tongue lashing and resenting it even before it happened, I let my annoyance show as he drew near.
“There you are!” he said. “I thought I saw someone come this way.”
“So?” I said and immediately regretted it. My tone showed more annoyance than I felt, and it sounded pouting. “I just wanted to see out this way,” I said to cover the gaffe and gestured vaguely towards the fence.
“Good. I was hoping I’d find someone out here.” The way he said it made me look up at him. He was looking steadily at me with a strangely intense edge to his gaze. Not anger, but an urgency that didn’t fit with what I had done. I was taken aback.
“W-Why,” I asked.
“To see that,” he said, pointing to the cross. I must have looked confused because he went on.
“We get students up here all the time, but it isn’t often that we have something to show them.
“A few weeks ago, a family of three died over there, trying to cross that field.” He gestured across the border to the wide, plowed field with a light snow frosting the tops of the furrows. “God knows how they got that far. They must have scrounged a pass to let them within the controlled border regions and timed their attempt on a night with no moon. My guess is that they ran out of darkness, and tried to rush the fence as the sun rose.”
I felt a chill as he sighed and went on, quietly. “I was the officer in charge when we got the alert. One of our teams heard an explosion, followed sometime after with some AK-47 fire. We rolled on the alert and took up our positions. I talked to the scout team that first saw the East German guards out in the field here.”
Then he looked at me again with that intense look, grim faced. “It was a young couple and a small child, probably around eight or nine. I don’t know if it was a girl or boy, because the kid had stepped on a mine. You can guess the rest. The parents were found by the East German guards holding the body of their child. That’s where the guards shot them, still holding their kid.”
I stared, open mouthed, then looked away to the field beyond, more to hide the tears welling in my eyes that to see the field where they had died. I dropped my head to look at the cross with its wilted petals and ragged ribbon.
“The local Forstmeister put that up,” he explained. “He lost his wife in the East when he surrendered to the Americans in ‘45. He says he got the job here to be as close to her as he could.”
“I d-didn’t know.” I struggled to get the words out, and ended in a near whisper.
“I know you didn’t. That’s why I followed you. To tell you. Now you can let your friends know why we’re here.”
He paused and then gently added, “Take as long a look as you like but be back at the bus in half an hour.” With that he turned and walked back along the trail towards the bus.
I had heard of the Cold War, read about it, talked about it, and debated all the issues imaginable about it. But I had never FELT it so deeply until that moment. This wasn’t a debate about nationalism, or a system of government, or a different course of political thought. This was brutal, senseless evil. What fault could that child have committed that warranted such a death? And what risks the young couple had taken just to reach freedom, only to watch their child die within sight of it! Why the dawn of a new day should bring such abject misery was beyond my comprehension.
Thirteen years later, I stood on the same ground. The towers were gone, so was the fence. The fields were again plowed but with budding crops instead of mines beneath the furrows. The scar of the border was all but gone. A new visitor to the site would be hard pressed to locate its position, but I recognized the faint signs. The cross was even gone; I had looked for it.
I smiled at the irony of the moment. At seventeen I could see no reason to owe anything to my country or my flag. Others had done so for me. At thirty I stood as that officer had done before me, in uniform with captain’s bars on my collar. I felt a bit odd but gratified that I had been able to serve in time to see the erasure of that ugly scar across the fields of Germany. I crossed to the far side and walked freely in the fields over the border that was no more.
But the vision of wilted flowers in the snow is with me still.
Major, US Army – Retired